The one word that could neatly sum up what Gulf Coast business owners and entrepreneurs would like to see in the economy in 2017 is a soothing one: balance.
Principal interior designer | Space as Art
Company: Rodriguez has ambitious growth plans for 2017, both in geography and in the type of work Space as Art does for clients. On the former, the firm, which works with residential and commercial clients, with a niche in hospitality projects, plans to target clients in Naples for the first time.
The demographics there, says Rodriguez, are similar to Sarasota, where the firm has grown steadily post-recession. On the latter, the firm plans to do more branded environmental design for commercial clients.
That's a more complete way of addressing design, going from the beginning of the project through how employees can improve efficiency with proper design. “Things are really picking up,” says Rodriguez. “We are doing more quality projects, not quantity.”
Industry: Interior design, being a touch-it, feel-it business, has been slow to adapt to the digital age — there's no Uber of interior design. But Rodriguez says that has begun to shift, and online consulting for projects are a widespread industry trend. Space as Art has experimented with an online service. “There's definitely a demand for that now,” says Rodriguez.
Client expectations, both on value and the final product, have also shifted in recent years. That comes not only from the Internet, but from a blast of reality TV shows that allow anyone to become an expert in interior design. That's one reason why Space as Art's two-hour consultation program, a quick-service version of the company's work, has been such a big hit with clients. With the two-hour consultation, Space as Art will come to clients' home or business and provide a big-picture look at potential improvements.
Region: Rodriguez says as a small business owner, even in the economic recovery, what happens next is a constant worry. So while she sees and appreciates the cranes and construction activity in the Sarasota-Manatee market, she also sees concern. “People are still hesitant about making big decisions to spend a lot of money,” she says.
— Mark Gordon
President and CEO | Willis A. Smith Construction Inc.
Company: Sessions believes 2017 will be a banner year for Willis Smith. The company has an “excellent” backlog of work for projects “across the board” of commercial construction. The backlog is so robust that it exceeds that of last year and of 2007, a year that is generally considered to be the high-water mark for commercial real estate in Florida for the past century. Sessions notes the company is involved in a lot more health care-related work now than it was a decade ago, which has helped business overall.
What has not changed, however, is that Willis Smith continues to profit from long-standing relationships. “A significant amount of our business comes from repeat clients,” he says.
Industry: He is “cautiously optimistic” that the construction industry will continue to be healthy in the year ahead, though he adds that certain areas have become “a little overheated.” More pressing, however, is a nagging shortage of skilled, experienced and qualified workers. “There are challenges with a lot of the local subcontractors in finding experienced and qualified workers.” That's because a large segment of the construction labor force abandoned Southwest Florida a decade ago, when the economic downturn took hold, not to return. And while new workers have joined contracting crews, Sessions says the rules of supply and demand have impacted the industry in profound ways. “Right now, anyone who wants a job in construction as a trades person can be certain of getting it if they're qualified.”
Region: Sessions maintains the area will “remain steady.” He doesn't believe that 2017 will be busier than this year has been, but neither does he foresee a significant slowdown in 2017, either. Sarasota's downtown, in particular, is achieving “critical mass” for the first time, and the huge influx of people set to move into housing under construction will help perpetuate that trend. He also notes that Sarasota and Bradenton are increasingly being perceived as a “single market” by visitors, transplants and businesses alike.
— Kevin McQuaid
Co-managing director | IMG Academy
Company: IMG's core challenge the past few years has been to maintain its No.1 position in the youth and professional sports training marketplace, not to get to the top. It has done that, says McCarthy, by regularly adding new facilities, dorms and training centers. That includes a new soccer facility. “We've added some features that will allow us to grow even more,” in 2017, says McCarthy.
The sports training mecca has simultaneously boosted its marketing budget, adding several recruitment offices overseas, including outposts on Mexico, Europe and South Korea. Says McCarthy: “We continue to invest and double down in marketing.”
Industry: A significant trend in the industry is to meld science and data with sports performance. IMG, with a partnership with Gatorade, spends a good amount of resources on innovative ways to improve athletic performance. “We want to be best in class,” McCarthy says. Sports training facilities nationwide are also doing more to attract teams for week or two-week camps, where the teams have access to the entire campus. Recent teams that have spent a week at IMG's sprawling campus include the Oakland Raiders, the University of Michigan football team and the Argentina Boca Juniors soccer team.
Region: The Bradenton-area economy, says McCarthy, is at somewhat of a crossroads. Development is clearly on the rise, even in long-neglected south Manatee County. But McCarthy, like many others, worries new projects could be done before transportation and infrastructure issues are addressed, which would lead to more problems. “Everyone sees things getting better,” McCarthy says, “but there are some challenges.”
— Mark Gordon
Founder | GravityFree
Company: Sarasota-based GravityFree builds e-commerce sites for customers, about 70% of whom are in the floral industry, and offers ongoing service contracts to support the sites through things such as social media, email marketing, and search optimization.
Revenue increased by 17% in 2016, and Heaps expects to see similar growth in 2017 before growth starts to level off the next year. “We still have lots of opportunities in our base of customers, so as far as we can see it looks great,” he says.
The firm hired six people in 2016 and Heaps anticipates adding four or five additional staff members in 2017. “We're doubling the size of our conference room and building out more space,” he says.
Industry: Heaps doesn't see an end to the increasing complexity of digital marketing. “There are all of these properties where you're expected to market yourself, and that list grows on and on depending on your industry,” he says. “And that's in addition to the technical burden where you have to develop your e-commerce for different platforms and experiences.”
He's continuing to watch the issue of online sales taxes and the impact it has on e-commerce. “I don't think they're going to slow sales, but they will cause an impact on all the people who do business online as there's more reporting and laws they have to work with,” he says.
Region: Heaps hopes Sarasota County becomes more welcoming to younger people and employees. “The biggest hindrance to our growth is hiring,” he says. “Nearly everyone we hire we ends up moving here from somewhere else, which makes it slow and expensive to hire people. If we embraced the creative community and young people, not just retired people, that would certainly be helpful.”
Otherwise, he likes what he sees. “I think we're in a great place economically,” he says. “Real estate prices seem to be going up and people want to move here. If you go to downtown Sarasota there's more going on. So I'm positive. I don't see things going poorly for us here.”
Owner | Apollo Sunguard Systems
Company: In 2016, revenue at Sarasota-based Apollo Sunguard Systems rose 40% over 2015, when the firm had about $3.4 million in sales. Connelly expects 2017 revenue to be 25% over 2016. He says that's due to an increasing recognition of the need for shade—which can be provided by the sails, umbrellas and other shade structures the company manufactures — as well as the improved budgets in recent years of the commercial and institutional clients the firm targets.
After hiring two new employees in 2016, Connelly expects to hire two more in 2017. “We'll also be breaking into the residential market soon,” he says. “We've developed a new way of attaching shade sails to the inside of pool cages.”
Industry: “I'm optimistic that trade issues will be addressed in 2017,” says Connelly. “I've been outspoken against free trade. I believe we should have fair trade; I believe our trading partners need to live by the same rules American, Canadian and European manufacturers live by. I'm optimistic that fair trade will come much more to the forefront.”
That would have major impacts on the industry, says Connelly. “Every billion dollars of trade deficit translates to 7,000 lost U.S. jobs,” he says
The manufacturing industry will also need to continue overcoming common misconceptions. “Some people seem to get the industry confused with belching smokestacks, and it's not the same thing,” says Connelly. “Today's modern industry is more like a college campus.”
Region: Connelly says a major challenge for Sarasota County going forward is a lack of land zoned for light industrial use. “If a major corporation wanted to come and needed 40 acres of land, they can't find it,” he says. “That is the key issue facing Sarasota right now.”
To address that challenge, Connelly says the county needs to identify a centrally located parcel of land close to I-75 and dedicate 1,000 acres to a modern R&D park zoned for clean, light industry. “There's land that could be acquired but it's not zoned for that now,” he says. “I would hope the planning department and the county government would take a hard look at the land-use issues. Right now our leading export product in Sarasota is our educated children who have to leave the area to find meaningful work.”